Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What's On Netflix?: BURNING SANDS

Welcome to another installment of WHAT'S ON NETFLIX?, where we pick out a film or series currently playing on Netflix and review it for the fans. This week's pick is the 2017 fraternity hazing drama BURNING SANDS.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. At first, Burning Sands doesn't appear to be all that different from any other modern college movie. A group of young men are in the process of pledging a fraternity in hopes of gaining access to the parties and higher-quality tail that come with membership. Sure, this is a movie about the horrors of out-of-control fraternity hazing, and that's totally a thing, but all I saw at first were pledges making silly "determined face" while boasting, posturing frat members acted like cut-rate drill sergeants or just, y'know, frat boys.

Then the Fredrick Douglass quotes started, and with them came the commentary that Burning Sands wants to make. The point of Burning Sands isn't entirely what you think it's going to be.

Several pearls of wisdom from the great Abolitionist are worked into Burning Sands' narrative, but there was one that jumped out at me in particular. It comes at around the thirty-five minute mark, and it marks the point where Burning Sands became meaningful for me, instead of just another drama based on a recently popular news item. During a long sequence in which the group of pledges which the story follows are viciously beaten with a wooden paddle, the main character, Zurich, one of the pledges, recites in voice-over, "Find out what just any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them. And these will continue until they are resisted with either words, or with blows, or with both."

Douglass was speaking of the treatment of blacks under slavery, but the quote has meaning in the context of hazing. In the case of this movie, Zurich and his fellow pledges are enduring "Hell Week", when new pledges are at the mercy of the frat members and must endure whatever ritual the members come up with in silence. And the things these young men must endure grow increasingly horrifying as the film progresses, up until "Hell Night", the final night of the week, when the beatings and humiliation come to a head. It's in this quote that the film makes part of its point: somewhere along the way, hazing turned from a simple rite of passage into a cruel and dangerous game. Yes, it's true that hazing has been banned at many colleges and Universities, but we are all aware that just because a thing has been banned, that doesn't mean it's gone away. In those places where it does continue, it does so only because no one speaks up.

And we see what happens when someone first speaks up; you'll see some of that pushback in the trailer below. Zurich is reassured that the frat members are "honorable men", and that what's happening is nothing more than a tradition that comes with new membership. And so he endures. Then Hell Night comes, and the hazing climaxes in the expected way, and the film ends with Zurich having an "I could have done more" moment.

It's possible that the film is also trying to say something about Black-on-Black crime, as well, given that the story is set at an all-Black college. The film uses a quote from the possibly bogus Willy Lynch letter -- the line about "[using] fear, distrust and envy for control purposes" -- to draw a corollary between the power frats can hold over their pledges, and the infighting that was fomented among slaves to keep them at each others throats and thus too weak to mount an effective rebellion.

To its credit, the film does not try to suggest that fraternity hazing is part of some devious White conspiracy. Even if that were true (and it would mean that the plan had backfired stupendously if it was), the power of culture to influence the behavior of a population is such that those seeking to change that culture from without only need to exert themselves for a short time, perhaps a few years in small cases. After that, the culture will have adapted to the point that it can carry on affecting new arrivals to that culture without conscious effort from its members. To put it another way, the people make the place, then the place makes the people. Using the topic of hazing to comment on the larger problems in Black society gives this film a power it wouldn't have otherwise had.

Burning Sands wants to start a conversation, and its only real failing is that it comes at a time when everyone wants to start a conversation. What this movie has to say is important, but it may get lost in the noise for the time being.

Burning Sands is rated TV-MA.

Robert's Score: 8.5 / 10

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